Villa of Delirium

What’s ancient Greece doing on the French Riviera? (Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; early to mid-20th century): A fantastical way to reflect on this fantastical historical novel would be to visit the real villa it’s based on: Villa Kérylos.

Short of that, you can take this 3D tour provided by the two-centuries-old Institut de France that owns the Villa, now a museum. You can further pique your interest reading this New York Times article, lavishly photographed. It led me to this sensuous and complex historically imagined novel written by what feels like the only person who could do it justice, Adrien Goetz, a French professor who teaches art history at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He’s also the editor of the Louvre Museum’s magazine, Grande Galerie. (The Louvre, the world’s largest museum, recently digitized their entire 480,000 piece collection online for free.) Goetz also writes for the French newspaper, Figaro. Turns out he’s also an expert on ancient Greece, telling us in A Few Historical Clarifications and Acknowledgements – few as in a dozen packed pages – that he was introduced to this ancient civilization at an early age by an uncle.

Kérylos is the Greek word for halcyon. In the aptly titled first chapter, The Halcyon Terrace, Goetz defines it in poetic and poignant terms: “The halcyon swoops over the waves; it is the bird of sadness, that bird that weeps in poetry.” The novel inspires many interpretations, poetic and poignant certainly. The overarching theme is the Villa’s exotic and eccentric mystique, although it fits the grand scale and grandeur of the French Riviera.

Villa Kérylos by Patrice Semeria [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An unnamed narrator recounts this inventive, fictionalized tale soon after Gustave Eiffel’s landmark Paris Tower opened (Villa Eiffel neighbored Villa Kérylos). Spanning half-a-century, it ends around the time Grace Kelly became the Princess of Monaco in 1956. Which means it takes us through a reawakening to Picasso’s Cubist style, the Belle Époque, and the Nazi’s ransacking of the Villa during WWII as the owner, Théodore Reinach, and his family were Jewish.

Théodore Reinach was an archaeologist obsessed with Greece and making a discovery, a scholar on many other topics, who along with French architect Emmanuel Pontremoli designed and built this “blindingly” white villa perched high up on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in a small village near Cap Ferrat, peninsula of millionaires

Théodore was a member of the Institut de France. The museum hosts yearly conferences, which the author has participated in, speaking volumes as to how much there’s to explore and how much Goetz incorporated into his novel.

The narrator says Théodore was “more famous than a movie star.” Then why has no one written a biography on scholarly Théodore? Goetz surely could.

Expect many references to go over your head, as they did mine. And yet, you can’t put this book down. Goetz’s prose captivates. Soak up as much as you can, as I did. There’s still plenty to fascinate, absorb, and sense. Even if you’re not interested in ancient Greece, like I felt, Goetz wants us to appreciate this classical culture’s numerous, lasting contributions to society and language.

That’s why he starts off with this epigraph quoted from Théodore Reinach, explaining why we should care about ancient Greece: 

“The Greeks discovered glory, they discovered beauty, and they brought to this discovery such jubilation, such an overabundance of life, that a sense of youthful contagion can still be felt even after the passage of three or four thousand years.” 

In Théodore’s eyes, his Greek palace was a symbol of beauty, simplicity, and elegance. The reader will decide if it’s a spectacular feat of genius or madness? Decadence or outrageousness? 

Our wistful, astonished, and forlorn narrator recounts this story in his seventies looking back on his youth, the “master of Kérylos,” culture and history with remarkable detail from his teenage years to the end of his twenties when he “watched this white and ocher house being built, lived here, worked here, fell in love here.” Tutored in “Archaic Greek” by Théodore too. His emotions run the gamut from awe of a brilliant man, idyllic contentment, and to an “absurd labyrinth that now seems grotesque to me.” After he left it, the narrator became a well-known Cubist painter and friends with George Braque, the other founder of this abstract art movement.

Théodore was attracted to the narrator’s youthfulness and friendliness, his Corsican Greek roots, and drawing skills taught to him by Eiffel, whose home he’d grown up in as the son of Eiffel’s cook.

“I still have a set of keys to the house,” the narrator begins. Abandoned at the time, he lets himself inside unnoticed to record fifty years of the Villa’s existence before it’s forgotten. The author got permission to write parts of the novel here, so he knows his way around the way the narrator “knew every room.” Which means he knows the names of every room, each named in Greek, listed at the back of the book. Even the dogs bore Greek names. The library overflowed with books on ancient Greece. The narrator’s memories and musings published as this novel.

Besides Théodore, the focus, his brothers Joseph and Salomon also lived here. All three famous in their own right. Why, then, is this family first becoming known to us?

Two mysteries drove the narrator to document the past. The primary one was to find an “extraordinary object” that belongs to him, hidden from most everyone, but the narrator knows the truth about it. Desperate to find it, assuming the Nazis didn’t get to it first, he searches everywhere taking us through the Villa, its courtyard and rooms that dredge up the pain of not solving the mystery of the disappearance of his first love, Ariadne, a watercolorist and “young Greek woman of my dreams.” Hired by Pontremoli, along with her husband, to paint the Villa from all its perspectives.

Villa Kérylos by Christophe Recoura [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Renaming this pantheon to Greece Villa of Delirium fits the narrator’s mood when he fled delirious with unrequited love. His sadness comes from the fact that he couldn’t have her for keeps, despite now being a married man with children and grandchildren. 

A few words about Joseph and Salomon. Joseph was a politician deeply engaged in the scandalous, anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair. Salomon was director of the National Museum of Antiquities. In the Dictionary of Art Historians, you’ll see his extensive art and archaeology pursuits.

Théodore’s wife, Fanny, fancied the theater. Léon, their son, became a famous musician and composer. (Oikos, the music room.) Fanny was related to the fabulously wealthy Rothschilds, whose eye-popping Villa Ephrussi and gardens are another neighbor, now also a museum.

You’ll be introduced to new vocabularies steeped in Greek architectural, archaeological, and mythological worlds. An English word makes an impression: graphomaniac. Translated it means an obsessive impulse to write, which the three brothers did profusely.

A word about Natasha Lehrer. An award-winning translator, she pursued translation years after a career as an editor and journalist. In 2015, she wisely perceived a greater need for trans-national conversation.

The Villa was “proof that one could travel back in time.” Goetz has done a wildly superb job of letting us time travel.


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My Heart: A Novel

Introspections from a Bosnian war refugee without a country (Washington, DC region; 2010 to roughly 2016): My Heart is unique, so it doesn’t fit neatly into a single literature genre in my opinion, although the publisher makes it clear in the subtitle that it’s a novel. “Autobiographical fiction” to be more specific, stated on the back cover. Fiction inspired as “a consequence of war,” as I expected. But honestly, I didn’t see what aspects of this poignant and tender, sorrowful and beautiful book were fictional once read. It felt like a memoir. I’d love to hear from readers what you thought? Is it a novel or a memoir? Or something else?

The heart in the title and the abstract watercolor on the cover are symbolic of many facets of the heart of a soulful Bosnian writer, just like this multi-faceted book. Physical hearts. Broken hearts. Swollen hearts. A complicated emotional heart that tugs at our hearts as Semezdin Mehmedinović writes from the perspective of a political refugee who still feels like a stranger in a strange land even after living more than twenty years in America. “I’m a foreigner everywhere I go.”

In a moving, three-page introduction written in part, I think, to help define the book’s genre, fellow Bosnian-born author and literary critic Aleksandar Hemon explains the book is autographical only “in the sense that the person in the book is the person who wrote it.” Still, he doesn’t agree it’s a memoir. “Nothing about it is memoiristic or confessional, and certainly never indulgent or self-centered.”

According to this citation, it appears to have been originally published in 2017 edition as Me’med, Red Bandana, and Snowflake, and to have won a prestigious literary prize named for Meša Selimović, born in the author’s same Bosnian hometown, Tuzla, recognizing it as the best novel written in Bosnia. My Heart is conceived of in three segments with the same three titles, each focused on a member of the author’s family: himself, his son Harun, and his wife Sanja.

You might think Mehmedinović’s section is self-centered in the sense that it opens in November 2020 when he’s having a heart attack and fears dying outside of his homeland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the republics of the former Yugoslavia. His heart aches for his beautiful country ravaged by a war considered the worst genocide in Europe since WWII. His heart is also weighed down by disbelief, shock that he’s only fifty having such a traumatic medical event.

Viewed as a memoir, this opening feels more powerful than fiction as it’s based on true experiences, trauma, and emotions of an immigrant long in America, where no one can pronounce his name; where no one knows the language his world revolves around; where no one (except other survivors of an ethnic cleansing war) knows much about what happened except for the horrific images seen on TV of the Siege in Sarajevo. Mehmedinović was living in Sarajevo during the war, fled with his family to America after it ended in 1996.

I think My Heart shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as it’s drawn from the author’s diverse styles of writing: poetry, essays, short stories, journalism. The writing is lyrical, poets are cited; the format feels like a collection of interconnected, real, short stories of isolated people, mixed with cultural commentary and the eye of an outside reporter.

The book is also hard to categorize due to its strong existential bent. The prose often comes across as stream-of-consciousness/dream-like/Zen-like, most prominently in the second segment focused on Harun. The red bandana is an image etched in the writer’s mind and heart as his son Harun wore one when he came to America at thirteen. The family was relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, then moved to northern Virginia outside of Washington, DC. Harun, a photographer, now lives in Flagstaff, ideal for photographing brilliant red rock country. Red Bandana memorializes car trips the two took together when the author got a chance to visit him. (He held a number of meaningful positions for Voice of America, Reuters, elsewhere). “For some reason, all the events connected with this town have the flavor of a dream.” And are crafted that way.

Written as a letter to Harun, this part reads like diary entries accompanied by sketches. A complicated and loving father-son relationship crisscrossing the desert landscape depicting a melancholy man discovering, because of his son, that America has its own share of beauty. Looming, though, is how hard it is to see beauty in a country that still feels foreign to you.

Some might call the sketches “mindfulness drawings.” In one standout scene Harun insists they camp out under the stars in the middle of Monument Valley. That drawing pictures the author meditating opposite otherworldly geological formations sculpted by eons of time and weather. It’s filled in more, darker than others, adding to the impression of how much happiness the author derived journeying with his son.

Monument Valley by Marcela Karner via Pixy

Here is where we especially find the author’s voice looking outside of himself asking beautiful, existential questions. “If life is to be lived, why not do it in beauty?” But you’re also reading about a “weary,” “frightened man” who’s seen the worst of mankind yet wants to be bathed in the simple goodness and beauty of life, “if only people did not complicate it for each other.”

“Why fill our lives with such effort and torment, when we have such a brief and unrepeatable time in this indescribably beautiful world?”

This is the most inventive section, with references to Franz Kafka’s drawings and diaries, and to Salvador Dalí’s surrealist images of melting clocks. My Heart creates its own existential and surrealistic imagery about sizzling heat and time. Dalí’s most famous work is titled The Persistence of Memory. Note that the melting clock in this painting includes a rocky landscape.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí
Photo by Mike Steele via Flickr

“Where does our need to accelerate time come from? “Why are we always in such a hurry to reach the future?”

Memory, forgetfulness, and time are important themes expressed. Photography serves as a theme too, capturing the past so we don’t forget it.

Since Sanja is not present in this section, you might get the wrong impression she’s not loved as profoundly as Mehmedinović loves his son. Nothing could be further from the truth. Snowflake is a testament to her beauty, courage, and fragility.

“Misfortune has reduced us to our essence. And nothing is left of us apart from love.”

Sanja’s tale also starts off with a serious medical event, perhaps also originating from the heart. Two different medical diagnoses, with roles reversed. Both resulting in outcomes affecting their memories.

Written with so much heart, we feel closer to Sanja in the last part. When we learn why she loves two literature classics – The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – we connect to her fantasies. “She is drawn to a world that exists in costume drama.” We relate to her dreams because we too want the world to be a kinder, gentler place.

Since the author’s “world is my language,” we appreciate the importance of translated books. Hemon asserts Celia Hawkesworth’s is a “wonderful translation,” letting us know he read the book first in Bosnian, then re-read it in English.

For a writer who didn’t rush time to get to his future, you’ll be happy to know he’s returned to Sarajevo.


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A Matter of Death and Life

Life-affirming, love at first sight (Palo Alto, California; April 2019 – March 2020): Do you believe in love at first sight? Enduring love until death do us part? “Few regrets” in life? If you do, this book is for you. If you don’t, this book is for you.

Expect to be teary-eyed while wrapped in a comforting blanket as two distinguished professors and prolific authors candidly offer “two minds rather than one” as they look back on sixty-five years of a joyful, caring marriage and overflowing, rewarding lives until one is diagnosed with multiple myeloma (“cancer of the plasma cells”) and the other overwrought about losing the “most important person in my life.” One fearing so much of his past will be lost as his soul-mate was at the heart of it all, while also experiencing disturbing memory issues. All triggering “obsessional thinking” and “traumatic repression.”

Unthinkable it would seem for a man who devoted sixty years to psychological healing with devotees all around the world. A pioneering existential psychotherapist who treated countless bereaved clients now fears living as an “independent adult” for the first time in his life. Faced with the “inevitability of death” not unlike all of us when you strip the meaning of life down to its core. “How do we live meaningfully until the very end?” Two graceful people also ask in graceful prose, “How can we gracefully leave this world to the next generation?”

That man is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, Dr. Irvin Yalom. That woman was Dr. Marilyn Yalom, who also had an immense reach and resonance as a Stanford professor of French language, literature, and culture, and a feminist pioneer in women’s studies. Trailblazers in their respective fields.

With four children and eight great-grandchildren, a tight-knit, supportive family, plus an endless list of admirers – students, colleagues, researchers, readers – it’s hard to imagine more loving, fulfilling, good, and generous lives. Their last year together is remarkably life-affirming as each lived with few regrets. Each, though, taking a different perspective on how long to hold on for the other when your dignity is being chipped away with intolerable physical pain and hope dimming by the day.

Among the many themes packed into this short, provocative memoir (222 pages, including two beautiful photos and the poignant cover sketch) is the thorny topic of choosing when to die if it’s legal in your state. California is one of the states that has passed compassionate physician-assistant death with dignity laws, the word suicide rejected.

By a twist of fate, Irvin Yalom is supremely qualified to write about this as he’s known for his ability to counsel through “difficult dialogue.” Including baring his personal feelings, considered part of why he’s been so successful in changing lives. You’ll find Marilyn Yalom equally capable and frank, coming across as more practical-minded compared to his existentialist thinking and struggles with “death anxiety.” Both painfully honest in sharing their “torrent of pain”: hers more physical, his more psychic. Both philosophical as they document the worst year of their lives. She calmer and accepting, he more fearful and denying. Both grateful for all their blessings.

Which explains the emphasis in the title of death before life. And yet, above all else this intimate memoir is a wondrous celebration of two lives, and the grief that comes when their journey together is ending. “Mourning is the price we pay to have the courage to love,” the opening epigraph, speaks to all of us about “living meaningfully.”

“Evanescence” is a lovely word appearing in the title of one of Irvin Yalom’s chapters. It embraces a love story kindled when a fifteen-year-old boy fell in love with a girl about his age in ninth grade. That man is now 88; Marilyn was 87. 

If you haven’t had a reason to become acquainted with Irvin Yalom’s psychotherapeutic work, you may have read one of his “teaching novels.” Spanning forty years, from 1974 to 2015, they include Every Day Gets a Little Closer; Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy; When Nietzsche Wept; Lying on the Couch; Momma and the Meaning of Life; The Schopenhauer Cure; I’m Calling the Police! A Tale of Regression and Recovery; The Spinoza Problem; and Creatures of the Day (

I was personally influenced by Yalom’s landmark textbook, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, as a graduate student at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, where they both were born and raised. (The influence of their East European Jewish parents described with wonderful introspection.) I still recall the third edition’s purple cover and circles at the bottom for its surprisingly eloquent prose for a text, the bible in my group counseling course. The jacket colors have changed over the years; multi-colored with circles everywhere for the sixth edition co-written with Dr. Molyn Leszcz, President of the American Counseling Association, while Irvin Yalom was also writing this memoir.

In the forty-minute TED talk below, How a Life Shape’s a Life’s Work, Leszcz shares the stage with his forty-year old friend and collaborator, an “iconic figure” who “inspired generations of group therapists” on the “human condition.”

It’s “rare for a psychiatric text” to stay in print for so long, says Jeffrey Berman, an English Professor at SUNY Albany who wrote the only book that’s examined the full body of Yalom’s writings, Writing the Talking Cure: Irvin D. Yalom and the Literature of Psychotherapy.

Marilyn Yalom matches her husband’s compassion and slew of admirers, inundated with so many wanting to visit her during this precious time. Having to pace herself not to overtax how much she can extend of herself while she’s in wretched pain and dying.

She too has a long list of published books, including Before the Chess Queen; How the French Invented Love; A History of the Wife; The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship; The History of the Breast; and The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love released in 2018 ( She too was committed to another writing project while writing this memoir: Innocent Witnesses: Childhood Memories of WWII, with an introduction by bestselling author Meg Waite Clayton, whose WWII novel, The Last Train to London was reviewed here: One of their sons, Ben, finished it. (Yes, planning to read it.)

To glimpse Marilyn’s presence, eloquence, and knowledge watch her give a fourteen-minute TED talk on How the Heart Became a Symbol of Love:

That’s what this memoir is: a symbol of love.

In commenting on an art exhibit that recently opened at the New Museum in NYC on Grievance in Art and Mourning in America, Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee asks, “How do you translate mourning into community?” That too is what this memoir is about.

It’s not only a gift for us but for a profoundly grieving widower who discovers the hours he spends completing the memoir over four months brought him solace. Recounting it’s only “120 steps” from his Palo Alto home flooded with memories to his office, he still finds happiness while writing. Marilyn knew he would because writing the memoir together was her idea.


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The Guynd: Love & Other Repairs in Rural Scotland

Would you marry the man if it meant restoring the 400-year old Scottish country estate he inherited? (Lowlands, Northeast Scotland, near Arbroath on the North Sea; 1990-2000): I knew when I married the man that I married the mansion,” biographer Belinda Rathbone opens her immensely entertaining and evocative memoir, echoing Charlotte Bronte’s classic line when Victorian-era Jane Eyre declares, “Reader, I married the man.”

Reader, it will be up to you to decide whether restoring a four-centuries-old “crumbling” British estate in rural Scotland (near Dundee on the map below) – essential to accepting a marriage proposal – was a fairy-tale come true, or something else? Keep in mind this romantic notion meant stepping further back than Britain’s Victorian times to the Georgian and Regency eras when the Guynd estate was envisioned and built.

By Eric Gaba (Sting), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2021 the Regency era is hot owing to the Netflix series Bridgerton, inspired by the historical romance novels of Julia Quinn. So, it’s a fitting time to read this charming, good-spirited memoir originally published in 2005, republished in 2019.

When single 39-year-old Rathbone, raised in New England living in a Manhattan apartment said yes to marrying 53-year-old Scottish bachelor, John Ouchterlony, living in a flat in London, she thought she knew what she was getting herself into. She’d fallen in love with a boyish man “cut of the old cloth,” a mechanical engineer who had a deep respect for his ancestors and cultural Scottish heritage. She paints broadly how both her parents influenced her appreciation for art, antiques, history, and nature.

Googling, we discover both her parents had distinguished careers. Her father was an international art expert who’d been the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for seventeen years (The Rathbone Years). We’re told her mother had British roots, subscribed to Britain’s gorgeous Country Life magazine, and was skilled in the “art of entertaining.” Looking further, we learn she was a ski racing champion on the slopes of the Swiss and French Alps. Fascinating biographies, but this is their daughters’ British story, fascinating too.

Belinda Rathbone, schooled in the fine arts, comes across as charming: eloquent, good-natured, good-humored, passionate, curious, resourceful, and literary. As a book lover, she imagined herself as “a character in a Jane Austen novel” when John proposed his fantastical proposition. But once married and moved into the Guynd mansion house she saw herself closing Austen’s Mansfield Park opening the Dickensian world of Bleak House. It didn’t take long to realize John was wedded to the past, adverse to change as he couldn’t bear to throw anything away, down to the torn stockings she’d thrown out. There’s no such thing as “waste” to a man intrigued by how everything works, and a savior for someday.

When does saving things cross the line? Psychologists diagnose hoarding as a disorder when it interferes with relationships and the quality of life. Yet, the couple found ways around their differences, with the author seeming to embrace the challenges, fully invested in bringing the Guynd back to life.

A different type of new life was awaiting amidst mind-boggling chaos and decay when Rathbone soon becomes pregnant. Now, she has even more reason to make her mansion home warm and comfortable. Her son Elliott is the biggest beneficiary, beginning life as an infant carried on his mother’s back seeing a fairy-tale world of ancient woodlands and parklands that offered a “sanctuary for birds and wildlife.” Four hundred acres worth. Early on he makes a pal, Christopher, often by his side. He’s treated to Christmas decorating parties, old-fashioned game-playing parties, parties at castles. All while his mother balances with remarkable ease dinner parties (making pains to use antique wares); hosting American and Scottish friends and relatives; enjoying the daily British ritual of afternoon tea; digging into family genealogies; and inviting a slew of historical societies to offer restoration advice and consultation on historical preservation grants as the estate is deemed a national treasure.

All while renovating, designing, and decorating a thirty-room estate home and gardens, and much more as the Guynd had been an “agricultural estate.” A farmhouse and farmlands are still occupied, minimally maintained by an old farmer barely seen. An overview map depicts these sites plus the original old house, the early-19th century mansion house, the walled gardens, a lake, and a lodge near the front gate.

What you don’t see is how grim the structures were; how dark, neglected, and threadbare the house and furnishings were, essentially untouched since soldiers were housed in it during WWII; the boathouse and temple by the lake; the terribly overgrown gardens disturbed by forty Christmas fir trees planted that failed to provide a thriving business; the shabby flats rented out on the east and west sides of the main house that attracted problematic tenants; cattle grazing in the distance; two horses boarded; and two dogs running free.

This is an overwhelming, overflowing mother’s plate, heightened by acclimating to another country used to a hard life. For a modern woman who expected modern-day conveniences unnecessarily exasperating, to be asked to wash clothes in an outdated washing machine housed outside the estate in the garage, which meant trekking in miserably cold and wet weather (Guynd means “high, marshy place” in Gaelic), and then discovering there’s no dryer! These revelations and obstacles happen over and over, but in Rathbone’s telling they feel part of the compromises made in a good marriage, though on a far grander scale.

Until we start to sense something else may be afoot. 

When did things start to take a toll? When the newlywed had to tell her husband she needs a space to hang her clothing? When she can’t find a single working vacuum cleaner among a collection of vintage ones cluttering a hallway, enough for a “museum?” Humor is required and Rathbone has a flair for it, but when does this cease being funny?

To be fair, John relents to buying a Dyson machine for its high environmental marks as it’s bagless, thus no waste. What about wanting to paint the dreary yellowed walls fresh new yellow? The dining room Williamsburg Blue for soothing appeal? John eventually agrees to all, but not to equipping the frigid kitchen with an Aga stove ubiquitous in British kitchens for those who can afford it. He does find a substitute, and other inventive ways to assuage his wife.

For a home hidden five miles from any road, there’s a menagerie of people coming and going. One with staying power is an artist, Stephen, living long-term in one of the flats. He along with others join John in heavy labor jobs. Temporary tenants offer a perspective on how the British class system works between the landowner called laird and the working class. From how it used to be to how it operates in the 21st century.

Delighting in Elliot’s wistful and healthy nature-nurtured childhood, Rathbone’s professional work also explains why she devoted herself to the centuries-old estate. Referred to as a “photography historian,” she wrote the first biography of the photographer J. Walker Evans, whose famous black-and-white imagery depicted the Great Depression in America’s Deep South. Remarking she went from one plantation to a vastly different one, she now calls herself “a biographer of a country estate through the ages.”

Since Rathbone’s memoir ended a while ago, you can search where her story went after 2000. Suggest you wait until you’ve finished this outstanding book. It will leave you wondering: Did the marriage hold together after the estate was wonderfully brought to life?


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The arc of a 20th century life (rural Indiana, through the Depression, WWII, contemporary times): In William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well, he advised writers to “simplify your language and thereby find your humanity.” Award-winning, Brown University Professor of Literary Arts Laird Hunt’s latest novel embraces that lofty goal. Zorrie is a magnificent read, boiled down to a slim 176 pages packed with humanity.

The tender prose sends an existential message about an honest, hardworking life of basic yet deep values that strikes a melancholy, nostalgic, and hopeful tone. It feels as if Hunt sat down to craft soulful words for the purpose of comforting us through dark times into the light.

A “life is everything” message written with such gentleness, grief, sorrow, and hopefulness, remarkable for how it touches us in so few words as we mourn the lives of loved ones we’ve lost during historic times. Pained by so much suffering and isolation, and yet offering a message of finding a way to “think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” Words one of the characters says, inspired by the words of a brave young girl, Anne Frank, in her famous WWII diary.

The novel’s overarching theme is about finding ways to seek the light amidst the darkness. It’s prefaced by a lovely quote from the French writer Gustave Flaubert from his short story A Simple Heart, imparting the same theme, referencing “light sparkling in the night sky like a company of stars; beyond the sea stretched dimly.”

Hunt tells us in his Acknowledgements Flaubert’s story was among the books he “kept close to me as I wrote.” Also in this list: Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl; Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; and the philosophical writings of France’s Michael de Montaigne and Greece’s ancient Herodotus. Other classical works appear in the book, offering wisdom and puncturing stereotypes about rural life as Zorrie is set in the fertile farmlands of Indiana’s Clinton County.

Zorrie loves Indiana’s soil, “the smell of the clay-rich dirt.” “Dirt she had bloomed out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew.” She’s a “giver of gifts” straight from nature’s bounties: “an abandoned nest, arrowheads, monarch wings, and turtle shells.” Someone who hears birdsong as a harbinger “to sing the world back into being.” Nature is fundamental to Zorrie’s ability to see lightness. As are warm, sustaining memories of love, friendship, and companionship as the novel opens when she’s in her fifties and then looks back on her life.

This is not the only novel Hunt has set in Indiana. For instance, Indiana, Indiana apparently (to-be-read) introduces the male character who quoted Anne Frank’s poignant words, Noah Adams. In it is the woman he fell in love with, Opal. In Zorrie, Opal is living in a mental institution with Noah longing for her. He’s the son of the scholarly farmer, Virgil, and his wife, Ruby, close by neighbors and dear friends over many years. 

Organized into six parts, each a chapter written in long, flowing narrative prose, each prefaced with a few poetic words that allude to the same sad versus hopeful theme, starting with Part I’s: “Out of this shadow, into the sun.”

In quiet, assured prose, the opening sentence serves as a prologue to Zorrie’s backstory:

“Zorrie Underwood had been known throughout the county as a hard worker for more than fifty years, so it troubled her when finally the hoe started slipping through her hands, the paring knife from her fingers, the breath in shallow bursts in her lungs, and smack down in the middle of the day, she had to lie down.”

Already we’re drawn to her industrious, down-to-earth, noble life. Orphaned young, both her parents died from diphtheria, an infectious disease essentially eradicated in the US thanks to a childhood vaccine, which in the 1920s killed hundreds of thousands. Ever so timely as we’re hoping new vaccines will bring us light after a dark year.

Raised by a bitter aunt who scolded Zorrie’s positive attitude, saying “hope’ll lead you straight into the bushes,” she dies when Zorrie was twenty-one, leaving her without any family or means of support. Despite her aunt’s chronic grumblings and her lonely plight, “hope had nonetheless often found a way to seep out and surprise her, bow graciously, extend its hand, ask her to dance.” The novel is full of grace.

Aware from the start that Zorrie’s health was compromised, we soon learn why. Tragic for Zorrie, and historically, as she was one of those young women who worked at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois before it was known that painting the face dials of clock pieces with radioactive powder was slowly poisoning them.

Hunt calls the yellow, glowing-in-the-dark powder “Luna powder,” a name that refers to the Moon, symbolic of the novel’s eternal theme of the perpetual cycling of seasons, the cycles of life. Indeed, Zorrie’s story cycles through the years and seasons of her life from early childhood to coming-of-age to adulthood to growing old till eternity. “Divine,” “eternal,” and “eternity” are prevalent words and universal themes seen from religious, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives.

The radium factory is key to the story health-wise and in terms of how powerfully attached someone’s image of Home can be. Zorrie made two dear friends on the job, Janie and Marie, the first real girlfriends she had, but she missed Indiana’s soil so much she left them when she didn’t even have a physical home. Returning to her homeland, she finds that farmhouse through the blessings of love and different kinds of friendships. Virgil, Ruby, and Noah, most significantly. 

Zorrie and her girlfriends called themselves “Ghost Girls” after they realized the powder on their hands and faces, having licked it onto their paintbrushes, glowed. Unaware of how sinister it was, they rejoiced in how they could “stand luminous under the stars” like Flaubert’s quote, feeling special, valued, for the first time in their lives.

While Zorrie stays in touch with Janie and Marie from time to time throughout the years, sometimes desiring to see them, mostly they remain fond memories of happy times. As other friends and neighbors cycle in and out of her life more memories buoy her as her life narrows and becomes lonely once again. A dog named Oats enters her life unexpectedly, beautifully evoking the soul-mate companionship dog lovers feel, especially people living alone or isolated. No surprise, then, that one of the outcomes of pandemic quarantining has been a surge in animal adoptions. Also, more baking and gardening, both of which comfort Zorrie too. The “gift of music” another pleasure.

In these ways, Zorrie’s life reminds us of ours. Nostalgic in our memories of loved ones we’ve lost, and for simpler times when neighbors truly watched out for each other.

Another quote from the above mentioned French philosopher Michel de Montaigne reinforces the life-affirming theme: “We must learn to endure what we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of contrary things, also of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud.” Hunt expresses this sentiment in fewer words: “The fragile film of the present must be buttressed against the past.”

The poetic rendering of a singular life humanizes the fragility of life, and shows us where to find strength and humanity.


P.S. The novel really hit home as my husband engraved our wedding bands with the inscription “Till Eternity.”

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